Monday, February 04, 2013

A between-place

Ragle Gumm is at the centre of his universe. Everything revolves around him.

Time out of Joint, by Philip K. Dick, was published in 1959. It's set primarily in small-town America, the 50s. There's a sense that life is good, anything is possible. This is the world through which Ragle Gumm moves. Every day he plays the puzzle contest in the newspaper, "Where will the little green man be next?" And every day he wins.

But Ragle is not entirely at ease with this world. It's a little too good to be true. At first it seemed, to this reader, that there's a little Cold War paranoia seeping in. But no, maybe it's just regular paranoia, a bit conspiracy-minded, like everybody but you is in on something. Also, Marilyn Monroe is conspicuously absent.

And then Ragle's world starts to fall apart, in more ways than one.

Maybe I'm not moving. Caught in a between-place. Wheels of the pick-up truck spinning in gravel . . . spinning uselessly, forever. The illusion of motion. Motor noise, wheel noise, headlights on pavement. But immobility.

It becomes clear that Ragle's got some sanity issues going on.

And it turns out that there's another world outside of Ragle's. It's the world of 1996, and there's a war going on with the lunar colonies.

Reality according to Philip K. Dick is never what it seems to be, and it can be constructed in various ways, requiring the collusion of multiple government bodies, or sometimes just the active cooperation of your own mind.

The ending was a bit of a disappointment to me, not in how the story was resolved, but in its execution. The last 30 or so pages feel like a different book altogether — it becomes expository and futuristic.

The magic of this book lies in its nostalgia for the 50s. There are weird details about the Book-of-the-Month club and its selections, fashion trends, and a fad for all things Italian. Dick writes about a future in which his present is a rose-coloured past. His 50s are rich with the things we would indeed grow sentimental over forty and fifty years later.

Time out of Joint is a weird little story. But it has great insight into how our minds go about creating our individual realities, how we choose details to form our memories, and how some memory gets physically lodged in our bodies. Hopefully we are none of us as deluded as Ragle Gumm, but we are each in our way the centre of our own universe.
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